Saturday, August 20, 2005
This Spring I was approached by a corporate executive to assist him in preparing a convocation speech he was to give to a private boys school. He sat on the Board of Directors – his son was an alumnus – and so he was committed to doing a first rate job.
He was a great client to work with. He knew the messages he wanted to deliver and he had some stories to tell. Would that all my clients would make it so easy going in. We worked on some humour – coming out of story of course – and we were very aware that an audience of 18 year olds wasn’t likely to be hanging on his every word. Still the messages of "dreaming big dreams while enjoying the moment" – "giving back" – "acting with integrity" - were all things he felt important to articulate – to the boys in the presence of their parents.
We put the thing together fairly quickly and we were happy with the product. He promised to give me a post-mortem report.
When he did, he told me of a little joke he added at the front end that was inspired by a chat he had had with his son a few days before the speech. At one point in their conversation he said “Dad, relax, the only person who is going to care about what you talk about is “you”. No one else will be paying much attention”.
He led with that little story and of course it got a commensurate laugh and sympathy from the parents who were all too aware of their sons’ short attention spans.
And of course my client’s son was right. The audience had expectations there would be a speech – because it was a convocation after all – but they probably didn’t much care what he said. Although I dare say they hoped it wouldn’t bore them to tears.
His comment also got me to thinking about this scary question. Do most audiences care what their speakers say?
My quick answer is “no.” They really want to have the speaker make them feel better.
If the occasion is commemorative – such as at a funeral at the passing of a great person or a close friend– they want the speaker to confirm the depth of their loss. They want someone to affirm the bond only shared grief among strangers can bring.
If they are angry stockholders they want acknowledgement of the legitimacy of their anger and they want to feel better by hearing the CEO announce a two for one stock split at the AGM.
It they go to listen to a politician – they want to be reassured that someone smarter than them is driving the train.
If they are fearful – think 21st century terrorism – they want to feel made to feel safer.
So yes all the usual rules about speech writing apply. Be clear about your client’s message. Write in a language that is easy on the ear. Tell a story or two. Remember too that the primary purpose of most speeches is not to deliver information but rather establish a level of engagement between the speaker and the audience and in the process have them buy into the messages.
But then think about how your audience might feel about the sum and substance of your words. Try to imagine how you would feel if you were in the audience. And what would make you feel better if you had to sit through one of your speeches.